Searching for answers in the cosmos

Olivia Ross's project studies the possibility of detecting primordial black holes using pulsars. Her passion for large, difficult projects, and the rigor of her scientific method, wowed her faculty mentor Stefano Profumo.

Olivia Ross graduated magna cum laude in summer 2020. She is eager to start work this fall at Cornell University’s Ph.D. program in astronomy.

In her sophomore year of high school, Olivia Ross (Kresge '20, astrophysics), winner of this year’s prestigious Steck Family Award, learned to channel anxious energies into scientific pursuits. 

“I directed all my angsty, existential teen moments of ‘what does it all mean?’ toward learning about the history of the universe,” Ross said. “I mean, what’s more existential than that?”

This redirected life force moves her forward. While attending Santa Rosa High School as a homeschool student, she also earned associate’s degrees in math, engineering, natural sciences, and physics from Santa Rosa Junior College, while holding down a part-time job.  

“Of course, everyone thought I was crazy, which is probably why I did it,” Ross said.

To pull off this feat, Ross devoted herself to college on weekdays, and high school studies on weekends. She graduated from both high school and junior college in June 2017 when she was 18. 

That focused ambition increased at UC Santa Cruz, when Ross took on even more daunting tasks, including her celebrated thesis project, “Searching for Primordial Black Holes,” which impressed the judges with its resourcefulness and innovation.  

Her project, in collaboration with her faculty mentor Stefano Profumo, physics professor and director of graduate studies for UC Santa Cruz’s Department of Physics, studies the possibility of detecting primordial black holes using pulsars.

Ross’s passion for large, difficult projects, and the rigor of her scientific method, wowed Profumo.

 “She is, simply, a one-in-a-generation gem,” Profumo wrote in February, in a letter of recommendation for the Dean’s and Chancellor’s Awards, both of which Ross received.  

Profumo called her “an exceptionally talented scholar, a gritty, motivated, exceptionally smart researcher, and plainly an incredibly good collaborator.” 

The Steck Award is given once a year to one UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, and recognizes the most outstanding research out of the 15 Chancellor’s Award honorees. The award also honors the care, work and guidance of the honoree's faculty mentor. 

Loren Steck (Porter '73), a UC Santa Cruz Foundation trustee, has described the award as a truly special honor for UCSC students: "Only the best undergraduates nowadays do senior theses," Steck said. "Only the best of the best of them receive Dean’s Awards. Only the best of the best of the best of them get Chancellor’s Awards."

A restless spirit 

Risk and ambition have fueled Ross since she took the first steps toward being a scientist at age 3. That’s when she first became obsessed with mathematics, a passion that led her toward science in high school, where she realized that daunting problem sets and laboratory experiments could be emotional as well as intellectual outlets.

Ross has never chosen the easier path. If anything, she always picks the steepest and most slippery slope. 

After high school, Ross took some well-deserved time off to travel through 33 of the United States and a small piece of Canada over a four-month period, then spent three months backpacking in Europe, including the Camino de Santiago trek. 

Arriving in UC Santa Cruz in 2018, Ross went through an academic identity crisis. She was not sure whether to call herself a first-year student or a transfer. But soon, she fell in with some good friends, lost herself in peaceful redwoods, and started her project with Profumo. 

His support helped her get over her initial unease. “I was absolutely terrified when I started research,” Ross said. “I had no idea how to do any of it. The grad students and professors were all so cool and intimidating, and I could not read a scientific paper to save my life. 

"[But] Stefano is such a supportive mentor to all his students,” Ross said. “I’m so lucky to have him as an adviser.”

Ross had learned about Profumo’s research and was keen on starting to work with him as soon as possible. She had a clear vision of what she wanted to work on: the question of whether primordial black holes could or could not be dark matter, Profumo recalled. 

“I was very impressed both by her resolve and by her passion and was delighted when she started to work with my best graduate student, Benjamin Lehmann, on a project involving the gravitational capture of black holes in planetary, and more broadly, binary systems,” Profumo said.

Overcoming obstacles 

But Ross, for all of her hard work and self-motivation, has faced obstacles along the way, including mood disorders. During the height of her academic career at UC Santa Cruz, where she enrolled in 2018, she put in long hours while coping with stress.

“I’ve always struggled with anxiety and depression," Ross said. "So the times when I was barely getting my homework turned in because it took all my strength to get out of bed or when I was so anxious I couldn’t even look at my advisers without freaking out, of course it was hard to get my work done.

“But I’ve learned a couple things,” Ross noted. “Putting off a meeting because you haven’t accomplished anything will always make you less productive. Just tell your adviser you need more direction and try again. Secondly, professors and grad students are real human beings, who are generally familiar with mental illnesses.

“If you’re sick, you can tell them. I’m still working on that one. But for me, learning to talk about mental illness as I would any other illness has made a huge impact on my personal and professional life.”

 On the hunt for primordial black holes

Ross’s thesis project quests after primordial black holes, so named because they formed very soon after the Big Bang. 

“The black holes we’re used to hearing about form from the death of stars, and because stars behave in certain ways, there are strict constraints on the types of black holes they produce in their deaths,” Ross explained.  

However, black holes that formed during the early history of the universe—primordial black holes—would not have to fall within these constraints. 

“They could be as small as the head of a pin or as big as 100 suns,” she said. 

Searching for these potentially small primordial objects became the latest in Ross’s endless list of daunting tasks. She chose a topic that she knew would test her. 

The question is, how do you look for something you can’t see?” she asked.

Ross and Ben Lehmann, the graduate student she was working with, decided to use pulsars as a tool to seek the primordial black holes. Pulsars—which are neutron stars left over from when a star turns into a supernova but is not quite big enough to form a black hole—emit beams of light, “allowing us to see when something is orbiting a pulsar without seeing the object itself.”

A driving force

Ross graduated magna cum laude in summer 2020. She is eager to start work this fall at Cornell University’s Ph.D. program in astronomy. She will study large-scale structure, which she describes as “the study of how and why matter is distributed throughout the universe.”

 Looking back, she can see just how far she’s come. Because of her early pursuit of four associates degrees, “my college career started when I was 15, so a lot has changed,” Ross observed. “I think the main thing is confidence. When I started, I had all these plans about doing community college as a teenager and homeschooling for high school and doing a U.S. road trip by myself. And nobody believed I could do any of it, which was honestly fair enough. But I did all that and more.”